The 16 best ’80s horror movies (January 2023)

Aliens, one of the best horror movies of the 80s.20th Century Studios

If you are looking for the best ’80s horror movies, the following are our 16 favorites, and where you can watch them.

The 1980s were a great decade for horror movies, thanks to the likes of The Shining, Poltergeist, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

We love horror here at Dexerto, for its social comedy, dark humor, and ability to make you jump out of your skin. Which is why we’ve written lists on the most underrated horror movies, the best non-scary horror movies, as well as the best scary movies from 2022 so far.

But this list is all about one of the great decades for the genre, with the following our favorite ’80s horror movies. But first, a little on why 1980s scares were so special.

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Sandwiched between Superman and Star Wars at the end of the 1970s, and the effects-driven extravaganzas of the 1990s, the 1980s were a strange time for the movie industry, where dramatic fare aimed at adults rubbed shoulders with kids flicks at the top of the box office charts.

But it was a golden age for horror, with new make-up effects allowing filmmakers to put hardcore gore onscreen for the first time. While some of the scariest movies ever made inexplicably got a PG rating, the nightmares they triggered helped to usher in the PG-13 era.

America was also in the midst of the Cold War, and with horror often reflecting what’s happening in society at the time, the horror movies of the 1980s were filled with fear and paranoia. Both of what might be lurking next door or around the corner, and also what might be hiding in us all.

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All of which made it a wonderful time to make horror, and an equally glorious time to watch. With the following 16 being the best horror movies from the ’80s.

Best ’80s horror movies: Aliens (1986)

Aliens is one of the best 80s horror movies.20th Century Studios
Sigourney Weaver returned as Ripley in Aliens.

Alien was one of the best horror movies of the 1970s. With Aliens, James Cameron took what Ridley Scott did with the premise to the next level, adding action to the mix, but retaining the scares, resulting in an all-out scream-fest that’s one of the best horror movies of the 1980s. As what’s scarier than one alien? A whole bunch of them, meaning that this time, it’s war. The Theatrical Cut was scary enough, but the Special Edition was even more terrifying, as we see the fate that befell Newt’s family.

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Where to watch: Hulu, which has plenty of other other horror films too.

Best ’80s horror movies: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

an-american-werewolf-in-londonUniversal Pictures
The famous transformation in American Werewolf in London.

There are two reasons for American Werewolf in London’s success and enduring appeal. The first is those special and make-up effects, with Rick Baker’s work leaps and bounds ahead of what was happening at the time, and the central transformation still impressive more than 40 years on. The second is the way writer-director John Landis deftly combines comedy and horror, the laughs big and the scares terrifying, making American Werewolf the blueprint for crossing those genres ever since.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

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Best ’80s horror movies: Evil Dead II (1987)

bruce-campbell-in-evil-dead-2Lionsgate
Bruce Campbell and chums in Evil Dead II.

The original Evil Dead has just as much right to be on this list, being the film that announced the arrival of writer-director Sam Raimi and his unique and kinetic visual style. But Evil Dead II takes what Raimi does and powers it to the next level, in terms of both gags and gore. Essentially a remake of its predecessor, it’s very nearly 90 minutes of Bruce Campbell being tortured, and horror doesn’t get more entertaining than that.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: The Fly (1986)

jeff-goldblum-in-the-fly20th Century Fox
Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

To try and keep the numbers down, we’re going one film per director, but David Cronenberg could have had his own sub-section thanks to the likes of The Dead Zone, Videodrome, and Dead Ringers. But The Fly wins out thanks to its heady combination of romance and horror. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis play the couple in question, and while the gore effects are breathtaking a scientist turns into fly, you finish the film thinking about their doomed love.

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Where to watch: Hulu, which has plenty of other other horror films too.

Best ’80s horror movies: Fright Night (1985)

chris-sarandon-in-fright-nightColumbia Pictures
Chris Sarandon gets sexy in Fright Night.

Vampires were big business in the 1980s, taking the classic gothic myth, and making it young, fun, and seriously sexy. And no ’80s vampire was sexier than Chris Sarandon’s Jerry Dandridge in Fright Night. Jerry moves into a new neighborhood, where a teenager suspects he might suck blood, and so enlists the help of a TV actor – hilariously played by Roddy McDowell – to do battle with the undead.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: Gremlins (1984)

gremlinsWarner Bros.
Christmas carols with the Gremlins.

Gremlins might not be the best film on this list, but it’s one of the most influential, the tale of killer creatures inspiring the likes of Critters, Ghoulies, Munchies, and more. Joe Dante directs from a Chris Columbus script, but producer Steven Spielberg is all over this tale of an exotic pet that comes with three very specific rules – don’t get it wet, don’t expose to sunlight, and never feed after midnight. The three tules are quickly broken, and carnage with a wickedly cruel streak ensues.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: Hellraiser (1987)

pinhead-hellraiserEntertainment Film Distributors
Pinhead and the cenobites in Hellraiser.

Legend has it that when author Clive Barker convinced producers to let him helm an adaptation of his Hellbound Heart novella, he ran out and bought a book about directing to learn the trade. The resulting Hellraiser is definitely rough round the edges, and features the odd dodgy performance. But it’s so sick, twisted, and visually inventive that those shortcomings don’t matter, while Doug Bradley’s “Pinhead” is a horror villain for the ages.

Where to watch: Hulu, which has plenty of other other horror films too.

Best ’80s horror movies: The Hitcher (1986)

rutger-hauer-in-the-hitcherTri-Star Pictures
Rutger Hauer scaring up a storm in The Hitcher.

The Hitcher plays like a spiritual sequel to Steven Spielberg’s Duel, with C. Thomas Howell discovering there’s no escape on America’s open roads from the title character, much as Dennis Weaver realized he couldn’t out-run that truck on the same terrain. Blade Runner aside, Rutger Hauer has never been better, bringing a perverse charm to the psychotic hitchhiker in question, while Jennifer Jason Leigh’s death is one of the decade’s most memorable kills.

Where to watch: Hulu, which has plenty of other other horror films too.

Best ’80s horror movies: The Lost Boys (1987)

kiever-sutherland-the-lost-boysWarner Bros.
Kiefer Sutherland leads The Lost Boys.

More cool vampires, this time courtesy of director Joel Schumacher, who values style as much as substance in this blast of bloodsucking fun. Jason Patric makes a pretty bland lead as the human tempted by vamps, but Kiefer Sutherland makes up for that void as lead Lost Boy David, while the Coreys are on scene-stealing form as a pair of vampire-hunters.

Where to watch: Disney+, which surprisingly has plenty of other scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: Near Dark (1987)

bill-paxton-near-darkDeLaurentiis Entertainment Group
Bill Paxton as vampire Severin in Near Dark.

Even more cool vampires thanks to Katherine Bigelow’s western horror, a film that was staked at the box office by Schumacher’s more commercial effort. Which is a shame, as Near Dark is one of the coolest entries in the genre, taking Aliens stars Lance Henrickson, Janette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton, and turning them into a vampire version of the Manson family, most memorably when they eat and drink the patrons of a honky-tonk bar.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

freddy-krueger-in-nightmare-on-elm-streetNew Line Cinema
Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Wes Craven gave us extreme horror in the 1970s though Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, while he re-invented and reinvigorated the slasher genre in the 1990s via Scream. But he’s probably best remembered for writing and directing A Nightmare on Elm Street, thereby giving us ultimate boogeyman Freddy Krueger. Freddy is a spectacular villain, and the fact that he can enter and kill in your dreams makes Nightmare the ultimate high-concept horror.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: Poltergeist (1982)

poltergeistMGM
Ghostly goings-on in Poltergeist.

Poltergeist comes courtesy of another horror legend in the shape of Tobe Hooper, whose Texas Chain Saw Massacre casts a bloody shadow over the genre. This was his first studio horror, telling the tale of a family being attacked by malevolent ghosts in their home. The budget was big, the scares were intense, and the box office was huge, with Poltergeist grossing more than 10 times its budget. Plus, who can forget that clown?

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator is one of the best horror movies of the 80s.Empire International Pictures
Jeffrey Combs delivering a memorably big performance in Re-Animator.

Director Stuart Gordon loved the horror of author H.P. Lovecraft, and regularly adapted his work. In 1985, he took on the 1922 novella ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ and the result was one of the most entertaining horror-comedies of the 1980s. Never one to knowingly underact, Jeffrey Combs plays the title character, a medical student who figures out how to bring dead bodies back to life. It’s funny. It’s scary. And nearly 40 years on, Re-Animator still manages to shock.

Where to watch: Disney+, which surprisingly has plenty of other scary movies.

Best ’80s horror movies: The Shining (1980)

jack-nicholson-in-the-shiningWarner Bros.
Jack Nicholson goes after his family in The Shining.

There’s a case to be made for The Shining being the scariest film of the 1980s; a match made in hell that’s directed by master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, and (loosely) based on a novel by master of horror Stephen King. Jack Nicholson tears up the screen as a struggling writer who takes his family to a remote hotel where he loses his mind, with truly terrifying results.

Where to watch: HBO Max, which certainly puts horror to the max.

Best ’80s horror movies: Society (1989)

societyWild Street Pictures
Society might be the sickest film on this list.

Society is the most obscure movie here, maybe because the sick and twisted nature of both plot and visuals meant it struggled to break into the mainstream. But Brian Yuzna’s best film is a wicked black comedy, about a kid investigating what his family get up to behind closed doors, and about how the rich live off the poor, in this case literally.

Where to watch: Apple TV, which had plenty of obscure horror.

Best ’80s horror movies: The Thing (1982)

kurt-russell-the-thingUniversal Pictures
Kurt Russell hunting the alien that’s hunting him in The Thing.

Our one director, one film rule means that John Carpenter’s The Fog, Christine, Prince of Darkness, and They Live all fail to make this list, but good as they are, they pale in comparison to The Thing. A remake of sci-fi classic The Thing From Another World, the film revolves around a research team in Antarctica hunting a shape-shifting alien that can take human form. Kurt Russell leads the cast, but The Thing’s real star is Rob Bottin’s messy make-up and creature effects.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, which features plenty of other great scary movies.